Avco Embassy Pictures
Directed by Ronald Neame
Produced by Edie Landau/Ely A. Landau
Written by Bryan Forbes/Brian Garfield
Based on the novel “Hopscotch” by Brian Garfield
I have always been impressed by the genius of Walter Matthau in that he’s equally at home in comedic and dramatic roles. It’s a gift he shared with his frequent co-star Jack Lemmon and I suspect that was at the core of why they worked so well together. They both could find the tragedy and drama in their comedic roles and find humor even in the darkest of characters they played. Many people don’t know or have forgotten that early in his movie career, Walter Matthau played villains very convincingly. One of my favorite roles of his is in that blackest of satires; “Face In The Crowd” which in this Era of Trumpism seems less like fiction and more like prophecy and in “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” he manages to be extremely funny and Sean Connery level tough, sometimes in the very same scene.
And in HOPSCOTCH Walter Matthau makes his dramatic and comedic skills work extraordinarily well for him in the character of Miles Kendig. Matthau plays Kendig just tough and smart enough that we can effectively buy him as an Old School CIA agent who has been around. He’s cold-blooded enough that he’s survived to be as old in this game that he is. But he’s adopted to the changing world of espionage he lives in. He’s evolved. He’s learned how to use his brains so that he doesn’t have to kill as much or as often as he surely must have had to do in the Cold War Era that HOPSCOTCH is set in.
Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) is in hot water with his number-crunching boss Myerson (Ned Beatty). During an operation to recover a critical microfilm, Kendig lets Yaskov (Herbert Lom) the head of the KGB go. Kendig makes the reasonable argument that he has known Yaskov for twenty years and if he had arrested him, the KGB would have put a new man in place whose methods Kendig would not know. That’s not good enough for Myerson. He fires Kendig and replaces him with Kendig’s protege, Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston).
In a fit of anger, Kendig steals his own files from the CIA and destroys them. He takes up with an old lover of his, Isobel Von Schoenenberg (Glenda Jackson) whose husband was an ex-Nazi Kendig had to turn in and a meeting with Yaskov gives Kendig the idea for his ultimate revenge: a tell all book revealing the CIA’s activities for the past forty years.
Isobel is horrified. “They will send men to kill you.” she asserts.
“But first they have to find me,” is Kendig’s response and that is where the title HOPSCOTCH comes in because Kendig then bounces all over the world, mailing in chapters of his tell all book while staying one step ahead of not only the CIA but the KGB, the FBI, MI6 and every other intelligence agency in the world because in telling the CIA’s shit, Kendig has to tell the shit that every other intelligence agency has been doing as well. So now everybody is on his ass. But Kendig has the advantage that he’s been around for so long that most of the tricks of the game are ones that he himself has invented and implemented. And he has an appreciation of classical music that also gives him an advantage over his pursuers I wouldn’t dare dream of revealing here.
For someone who doesn’t know Walter Matthau’s work and wanted to know where to start I would definitely give them HOPSCOTCH along with “Charley Varrick” “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and A Face In The Crowd” to start with. Most people are familiar with his comedies but these are movies that I think really show a different aspect of Matthau’s talent and one that maybe isn’t always appreciated. He’s having fun with the Miles Kendig character who uses a variety of disguises and personas to achieve his goals, whatever they may be at whatever particular moment. Which depends. It frustrates Isobel to no end and provides amusement to Cutter. Each in their own way are getting a helluva kick out of seeing Kendig stick it to the CIA even though on the surface they vehemently protest to the contrary.
We also have Ned Beatty who has never been anything less than sterling in any role he’s played. This is one of Sam Waterson’s early roles and I really enjoy how his character remains loyal to his mentor. He truly and accurately points out Kendig’s motivations for his every action. But nobody listens to him. And there’s a nice scene where it’s brought home to him that maybe he’s a little bit more like Kendig than is good for him.
HOPSCOTCH works on many levels: it’s a fine spy thriller. It’s a comedy. And above all it’s one of the best showcases of the talent of Walter Matthau that I can recommend with absolutely no doubt that you will enjoy it.